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elephant9/Motorpsycho at The Borderline, London, 24/11/2010

by Tim Owen

November 28, 2010


elephant9 apply the spontaneity of the improvisational or collaborative essence of true jazz to the straightforward energy of rock forms.

elephant9 / Motorpsycho
The Borderline, London

St?le Storl?kken - Fender Rhodes, Hammond organ, synthesizer
Nikolai H?ngsle Eilertsen - Electric bass
Torstein Lofthus - Drums

I don’t recall the last I saw a jazz act at the Borderline. Perhaps Acoustic Ladyland played there, as part of their venturesome outreach program? If they did, I don’t remember. It might be that I haven’t seen a jazz act at the Borderline yet. Certainly Motorpsycho, the headline act, are not jazz. But I went along primarily to see elephant9, and they are surely jazz in some sense; there’s a lot of overlap between jazz and rock, much grey territory, and it’s hard to say. Pointless too; I won’t go on about it too much. I’ll just suggest that most crossover traffic is one way - there’s a saxophonist in the band? Well that’s jazzy, isn’t it, and if we’re not sure, well, that’ll be the jazz bag anyway, by default - but elephant9 are going in the opposite direction, applying the spontaneity of the improvisational or collaborative essence of true jazz to the straightforward energy of rock forms.

St?le Storl?kken, working away from his main gig with Supersilent, may be rocking out with elephant9, but his playing, though more than usually forceful in this context is still distinctly identifiable. For UK audiences, Storl?kken is probably the most high profile elephant9 member, but bassist Eilertsen may well be the better known in the trio’s native Norway. He plays with arguably the country’s most popular live rock act, BigBang, which he left when the band departed for America in 2004, but recently rejoined. When he opted to stay in Norway he began to work alongside Jaga Jazzist’s Horntveth brothers, among others, in a Norwegian supergroup of sorts, The National Bank. Drummer Torstein Lofthus’ resumé indicates that he is insanely busy in Norwegian music circles, and constantly in demand. He’s a steady presence in Shining, and gigs and records with numerous other artists from across the musical spectrum. All this eclectic activity highlights the heady mix of jazz and rock in the elephant9 brew.

elephant9’s music is sectional, with contemplative intros leading to the powerful forward surges that constitute the meat of each track. The groups’ more indirect compositions have been reserved for the recordings. Eilertsen was superb on bass, and he was the essence of the groups’ propulsive power. His approach takes the bass out of its supportive role as an instrument of pure rhythm, but refrains from aspiring to a lead role; if the Hammond is the head of this elephant - Storl?kken signalling the imminence of each tight transition with a simple raised arm signal - then the bass is its throbbing, pulsing heart. Lofthus is even more stylistically restrained, and that restraint is essential to the groups’ success. He’s the powerhouse that drives things forward, feeding the fire in the groups’ gut, and there was little scope or call for frippery in his playing.

A jazz enthusiast I spoke to following elephant9’s set approvingly compared their energy and drive to Emerson, Lake & Palmer “without the excess”, and then he dashed off to catch something else at Soho Jazz Club. I saw where he was going with that analogy, but I’d say a closer comparison would be with an entirely notional Deep Purple Hammond trio splinter group, as led by a Jon Lord in love with jazz rather than the baroque. There’s a touch of funk to the elephant9 sound that, unlike Deep Purple, ELP fatally lacked. In contrast with his work in Supersilent, Storl?kken gets to really groove, and onto that groove he can drop discordant jabs and clusters of percussively overdriven Hammond.

elephant9 played a couple of tunes from their début album - “I Cover the Mountain Top” and the title track, “Dodovoodoo” - before three from this year’s excellent “Walk the Nile”, first “Aviator” and then the double whammy of “Habanera Rocket” and “Hardcore Oriental” (you will find my review of the album elsewhere on the site). They went down a storm with the Borderline audience, who had mostly come along to rock out with Motorpsycho. Flyers being handed out on entry advertised “old school metal”, and the marketing sense that displayed was pretty spot on.

Motorpsycho are one of the very many bands that have, for no particular reason, never really troubled my radar. That’s some achievement, as they’ve been active for over fifteen years now, and have a considerable catalogue of album releases behind them. They are, as previously noted, not jazz in any sense, and so fall out of scope for the Jazz Mann. However I grew up on Metal, or what passed for Metal in those days, and remain partial to a bit of “psychedelic rock?mix(ing) in elements from metal, jazz, rock, pop” (as Wikipedia fluffs their output), so I thought I should stick around and see what I’ve been missing. The first song didn’t promise much: two burly, long-hair geezers singing a stolid middle-of-the-road rock ballad (which, thanks to their PR, who gave me a setlist, I can identify as “Year Zero,” from 2008’s “Lucid Little Moments”). But I think they were just warming up or breaking the audience in gently. Things picked up no end with the next track, the first of two new numbers that bookended an absolutely stonking track titled “Whole Lotta Diana” (from the 2008 vinyl only album “Child of the Future”). If this were available on CD I’d have bought a copy). Now this really was like ELP, albeit an ELP high on Blue Cheer rather than Mussorgsky. I really, regretfully had to tear myself away after that, so I will have to catch a full set another time. Apparently I missed a second set that dotted some other recent material among selections from the groups’ earliest albums, including one “Hogwash” from their 1991 début.

Remarkably for an arty metal outfit channelling the spirit and (noble) pretensions of prog rock, Motorpsycho sport only guitar, bass, and drums. Apparently Helge ?Deathprod’ Sen was a member for ten years until 2002, and still produces the occasional album, but live the trio have no need of keyboards to achieve a sound of fearsome sonic density. That helpful PR promises, and I quote, that Motorpsycho are “heading into more expansive and impro direction (following on from their collaboration with St?le Storl?kken at the Molde Jazz Festival last year)”. That should really be something to hear; I’ve adjusted my radar accordingly.

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